When I Learned My ‘Shy Personality’ Was Actually Social Anxiety
I was officially diagnosed with social anxiety a few weeks ago, at age 25. But the first time I remember being socially anxious, I was 5.
I am 5. My mom holds my hand as we walk into my kindergarten classroom. There are 20 blue tiles on the ground. There are 14 pairs of shiny kids’ shoes. I know this because I cannot bear to lift my eyes from the floor, even as my mom puts her hand under my chin and murmurs “they are friends, they are safe.” They do not feel safe. My teacher tells my mom “it is fine, it is normal.” I do not cry as my mom leaves — how can I cry when I can barely breathe? My heart is racing. My palms are sweating. My teacher holds me in her rocking chair for the rest of the day. “Shhhhh,” she whispers, “some girls are just shy.”
I am 13. The highlight of eighth grade is supposed to be the formal dance. My friends bubble with excitement and speculate about who will ask them to the dance. Apparently, one of the boys plans to ask me. For the three weeks leading up to the dance, I do not talk to him. I hide from him in the hallway. I ignore his texts. At the dance, in my first pair of heels, I run to the bathroom every time there is a slow song because I cannot dance with him. I pace the bathroom alone listening for the beats of a fast song. My friends find me. They know that I like him. They ask me, “what is wrong with you?” I laugh it off and tell them, this is just the way I am.
I am 16. I am in the honors chorus class, and that is a huge deal to me! Maybe I have grown out of being shy. Maybe I am becoming cool like my friends and now people will like me. I love my teacher, but the moment that she announces that we will all sing individually in front of the class for a voice test, my blood runs cold. The lights seem glaringly bright and the room is hot. My hands shake as I review the music that I have practiced hundreds of times. I slowly stand for my part. As she plays the first notes, I open my mouth to sing. Nothing comes out. I cannot breathe. My heart races. No matter how hard I try the notes will not come out. I lie in my bed that night replaying the moment in my head like I am watching a movie. What must my teacher think of me? My friends must be so embarrassed of me. I should just quit. Shy girls should not sing.
I am 20. I love college, I love to learn. I get along really well with my roommate and think that this might be my chance to start over. My new college friends invite me to a party. What if I lose control? What If I embarrass myself? It is safer not to go, so I decline. What if they think I am judging them? What if they think I am not worth being friends with? I lie in bed and pretend to be asleep as my roommate comes home in the early hours of the morning, beaming with excitement from her first party.
I am 23. My roommates are kind, but I am afraid they hate me. I listen from the third floor to see when they are in the kitchen and will only go downstairs when they are not. Sometimes I miss meals because I would rather not eat than have to talk to one of them. Every time I speak, I say something embarrassing. They must think I am a loser. My roommates invite me to join them every time they go out. I decline every time. When they stop inviting me places, tears well in my eyes. “See,” the voice in my head whispers, “they never liked you.” When they invite me out one more time, I still say no.
I am 25. A pandemic hits and while the world is burning around me, my feelings of fear have subsided. I no longer pace in front of my boss’s office counting one, two, three in my head before forcing myself to go inside. I no longer walk the long way to work to avoid everyone who might say hi to me. I no longer feel jealous of all my friends who post pictures of the fun things they do. I stay at home. I read, I run, I bake, I play my ukulele. I realize that while the country is on pause, my world has not changed much. Maybe, I think, I should tell someone just that.
I sit across from my doctor as she asks all the right questions. Yes, I tell her, I avoid making phone calls. I can’t date. I feel like I will throw up every time I am called on during a meeting. These things, I tell her, are just my personality. I am shy.
She pauses, smiles and looks me in the eye. “This is not your personality — this is social anxiety. And there is a whole person behind that anxiety that the world deserves to know. With the right treatment, I can help you reintroduce that person.”
I feel relief, that there is a name for what I am experiencing and that someone wants to help. I feel validation for all the years I tried to explain to my friends how things felt to me, and they supported me but did not understand. I feel hopeful that one day instead of lying in my bed, wishing I could be more like my friends as I scroll through posts of them at parties, I will have the courage to join the party. To show up.
I am 25. I am starting a new journey of healing. I am here today to reintroduce the world to me: Morgan. A whole person, deserving of love, and friends, and fun experiences, who also happens to have social anxiety.
Getty Images photo via AntonioGuillem